Study: Choline Can Boost Baby's Brain Health—If You're Getting Enough

Here's how to get more of this nutrient into your pregnancy diet.
ByAnisa Arsenault
Associate Editor
Jan 2018
illustration of eggs sunny-side up
Photo: iStock

Eggs, almonds, salmon—all pregnancy foods you probably already knew can give baby’s brain development a boost. But a new study is zeroing in on a specific nutrient essential to baby brain health that not many pregnant women are getting enough of: choline.

Found in egg yolks, lean red meat, fish, poultry, legumes, nuts and cruciferous vegetables (think broccoli and cauliflower), choline has long been known to aid in fetal brain development and prevent neural tube defects. But researchers from Cornell University wanted to see how choline during pregnancy affected baby’s cognitive abilities throughout the first year of life. The first step involved getting women to consume enough; most women consume less than the recommended 450 milligrams per day.

“Part of that is due to current dietary trends and practices,” senior study author Richard Canfield says. “There are a lot of choline-rich foods that have a bad reputation these days. Eggs, for example, are high in cholesterol, and health professionals, including those in the government, have raised caution about pregnant women consuming undercooked eggs, which may deter women from eating them altogether, even though such risks are low for pasteurized or cooked eggs.”

Researchers took it upon themselves to strictly control pregnant women’s diets, making sure 13 pregnant women consumed 480 milligrams per day of choline while another 13 consumed 930 milligrams per day. All of the pregnant women involved in the study were in their third trimesters.

Once the babies arrived, it was time to start testing. Researchers evaluated how fast babies could process information and how accurate their visuospatial memory was at 4, 7, 10 and 13 months. To do this, they administered a test known to correlate with childhood IQ: timing how long each infant took to look toward an image on the periphery of a computer screen.

And guess what? Babies whose mothers had nearly twice the daily recommended amount of choline each day during their third trimesters processed information significantly faster. (However, both sets of babies showed cognitive benefits—any choline is better than no choline!)

The takeaway? The current recommendation for choline during pregnancy may not be high enough to help babies reach their full potential. But since the study’s sample size was so small, more research will be needed.

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